Nacer Bouhanni (FDJ.fr) won a crash-filled fourth stage of the Giro d’Italia on a day which saw much of the race neutralised by the peloton.
Heavy rain followed the peloton from Ireland to Italy and slick roads made for treacherous conditions on the technical 8.3km finishing circuit, with eight laps scheduled on the 121km stage in Bari.
That prompted the senior men in the peloton to move to the head of the bunch to ease the pace and race commissaires eventually took the decision to take times for the general classification at the end of the penultimate lap and before the bunch sprint fully took hold.
And as if to emphasise the point, the final lap was punctuated by a number of crashes on the tight corners, and it was Bouhanni who eventually triumphed to claim his first Grand Tour stage win ahead of Giacomo Nizzolo (Trek Factory Racing) and Tom Veelers (Giant-Shimano), while Michael Matthews (Orica-GreenEDGE), who did not contest the finish, retained the leader’s jersey.
Having left rain-swept Ireland for what was predicted to be more idyllic conditions in Bari, the stage instead provided plenty of headaches for organisers and riders alike.
First came the news that Marcel Kittel (Giant-Shimano) would not start the stage after the winner of stages two and three succumbed to a fever. Then it was apparent from the very start the wet weather was to have a dramatic impact on the stage, with the peloton setting a steady pace on the slippery roads.
Ivan Basso (Cannondale), Bernhard Eisel (Team Sky) and Svein Tuft (Orica-GreenEDGE) were among the senior riders to hit the front and dictate proceedings as they neutralised the race.
Race commissaires were seen pulling up alongside the front riders to discuss the situation, with Cadel Evans (BMC Racing) and Luca Paolini (Katusha) working with the officials to try to find a solution.
The roads, in fairness to the riders, were rain-soaked on early sections of the route, making for treacherous riding conditions. However, as the peloton entered the finishing circuit for the first lap, the rain had stopped and the bunch duly picked up the pace, with Orica-GreenEDGE lined out at the front.
It remained all together as road conditions improved, with Luke Durbridge (Orica-GreenEDGE) appearing to test the conditions on a corner but issuing a time-out signal immediately.
As the peloton entered the feed zone, discussions with the commissaires restarted again, with Alessandro Petacchi (Omega Pharma-Quickstep) – the oldest rider in the race – being called over for a chat, and maglia rosa Matthews was seen shaking his head as questions were raised as to whether the bunch would start racing again.
The mutual agreement to remain on the go-slow remained, with Eisel very animated as he spoke to the race commissaires on the bike.
Word eventually filtered through that the GC would be neutralised when the riders took the bell for the last lap, with no time bonuses available at the finish.
Orica-GreenEDGE continued to lead the way, with the only exception being at the intermediate sprint. No time bonuses were available, but points towards the red jersey – now vacated by Kittel and worn by Team Sky’s Ben Swift on the stage – were, and Cannondale came forward with Elia Viviani in tow. The Italian outsprinted Giacomo Nizzolo (Trek Factory Racing) to take the maximum ten points on offer.
As the peloton approached the final lap, Bouhanni encountered a mechanical at the worst possible time and dropped off the pace. Two team-mates came to the back of the bunch to support him, and they drafted through the team cars on their way back in, but with the bunch very strung out his hopes of a stage win looked to be over
At the front, Orica-GreenEDGE took the bell with Michael Matthews safe for another day in the pink jersey, and the Australian team remained on the front as the finish approached, setting a high pace as Team Sky and Europcar both also came forward.
Salvatore Puccio (Team Sky) and Nicola Boem (Bardiani-CSF) hit the front, earning a small gap but Cannondale closed it down with 3.5km remaining. The Green Machine stayed on the front, setting a frantic pace but several crashes in the bunch – of which Jetse Bol (Belkin) looked to be badly hurt after one – underlined the need to neutralise the stage.
With the bunch splitting and series of crashes in the final corners, a group of six riders – of which four were from Giant-Shimano – went clear, but Bouhanni was able to catch them despite his earlier effort to get back to the peloton.
And with Luka Mezgec, who has replaced Kittel as Giant-Shimano’s sprinter, suffering a gear issue on the final corner, and lead-out man Tom Veelers having to take on the sprint early, Bouhanni blasted past the Dutchman to claim victory.
Giro d’Italia 2014: stage four – result
1) Nacer Bouhanni (FRA) – FDJ.fr – 2.22.06hrs
2) Giacomo Nizzolo (ITA) – Trek Factory Racing – ST
3) Tom Veelers (NED) – Giant-Shimano
4) Roberto Ferrari (ITA) – Lampre-Merida
5) Elia Viviani (ITA) – Cannondale
6) Matteo Montaguti (ITA) – Ag2r-La Mondiale
7) Kenny de Haes (BEL) – Lotto-Belisol
8) Luka Mezgec (SVN) – Giant-Shimano
9) Bert de Backer (BEL) – Giant-Shimano
10) Francesco Chicchi (ITA) – Neri-Sottoli
1) Michael Matthews (AUS) – Orica-GreenEDGE – 12.28.43hrs
2) Alessandro Petacchi (ITA) – Omega Pharma-Quickstep +8”
3) Daniel Oss (ITA) – BMC Racing +10”
4) Ivan Santaromita (ITA) – Orica-GreenEDGE +14”
5) Luke Durbridge (AUS) – Orica-GreenEDGE
6) Svein Tuft (CAN) – Orica-GreenEDGE
7) Pieter Weening (NED) – Orica-GreenEDGE
8) Rigoberto Uran (COL) – Omega Pharma-Quickstep +19”
9) Pieter Serry (BEL) – Omega Pharma-Quickstep
10) Serge Pauwels (BEL) – Omega Pharma-Quickstep